WASHINGTON— The U.S. removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003 created a new dynamic between Iraq and Iran. The two nations, which fought each other in the 1980s, have re-established close ties - with implications for the region and the United States.
After fighting each other for nearly a decade, in a conflict that cost a combined half-million military casualties, Iraq and Iran ended their war in a stalemate in 1988. The two states remained coldly hostile for another 15 years.
In 2003, U.S. forces invaded Iraq and drove Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party from power. The result of that was the rise to power of the Shi’a, Iraq’s majority, whom Hussein had largely excluded. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shi’a Dawaa party are now a major force in Iraq’s government.
Iraq has renewed relations with its Shi’a neighbor, Iran, a move some in Washington view with concern.
But Iraq’s Ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily says America has to accept Baghdad charting its own course.
"It is important for the United States to understand that Iraq is an independent country, Iraq is a sovereign country, but Iraq is a proud ally of the United States," said Faily.
Faily also deflects criticism that renewed ties with Tehran have given Iran too much influence in Iraq.
Persian Gulf analyst Afshin Molavi of the New America Foundation said what Iran wants would look like Lebanon.
"Iran’s vision is creating an Iraqi Hezbollah. They were hoping that Moqtada al-Sadr could become the Hassan Nasrallah of Iraq, the leader of an Iraqi Hezbollah-type political party that would be both a militia and a political party that could also provide social services. It’s a model that has served them well in Lebanon," said Molavi.
Another Washington analyst, Fred Kagan at the American Enterprise Institute, said Iraq charts its own course, but often works in concert with Iran.
"Fundamentally, Iraq is acting, at this point, in the region as an ally of Iran on a state-to-state level in terms of its support for [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, in terms of Dawaa support for oppositionists in Bahrain, and just in terms of allowing the Iranians to flout the [UN, U.S. & E.U.] sanctions regimes in an outrageous fashion."
Molavi said the Iraq-Iran relationship is a matter of cold pragmatism and opportunism. "At the end of the day, I mean, these are amoral national interest states. You know, and these amoral national interest states will find reasons, you know, to shunt aside their ideologies, their religious affiliations, their sectarian identities, if they feel it’s both in the national interest of their state, but also, in the personal interest of their political elites."
Analysts say the emerging Iran-Iraq relationship compels the U.S. to accept that no one state will be able to control the outcomes in the volatile Persian Gulf.